Of all the American cuisines excluding barbecue, New Orleans food has long topped the list of the most recognizable. Being an intersection of Creole, Cajun and soul food traditions, the cooking of the Big Easy has a long history filled with many generations who spent time perfecting the craft. Denver has a few notable spots — Lucille’s and Sassafras have been holding down the morning for some time — but nowhere in town better embodies the spirit of Crescent City than NOLA Voodoo Tavern and Perks.
The humble hole in the wall from restaurateur and former New Orleans resident Henry Batiste looks like a sports bar, feels like a clubhouse and tastes like the well lived in kitchen of a Southern grandmother. It is a reason to visit the Cole neighborhood — an old Denver community that borders Five Points and City Park that could easily be otherwise overlooked. It is a destination and a definite reason to go outside the more densely-treaded paths of the Mile High’s dining scene.
The interior is remarkably comfortable. Even excluding the congenial decor, the place has a certain je ne sais quoi and an overarching tranquility that defy its sports bar sheen. The pace is never chaotic and the service eschews the frantic modern trend in favor of a more classic Southern step. The calmness is contagious.
Everything on the menu is good — being filled with staples pulled from the cookbooks of Batiste’s mother and grandmother — but few are as enticing and deeply satisfying as the red beans and rice (cup $5.95, bowl $7.95). This is the dish that makes regulars. If you show up too late there’s a chance that it will have run out. The combination of red beans, rice, Andouille and a rue fit for a king is deeply satisfying. It is served up in a styrofoam bowl, further emphasizing the down-home feel of the place. The Emma’s rice crawfish étouffée (cup $7.95, bowl $9.95) and the Vivian’s rice gumbo (cup $5.95, bowl $7.95) receive a similar treatment, each benefiting from hours of cooking and a secret family spice blend. There are also po’boys, a muffuletta, catfish and a variety of fried dishes solidly representing the varied facets of the cuisine. For dessert Batiste makes a cake, the daily slice ($3.65) is a sweet and comforting slab that comes courtesy of whatever the man is feeling that day.
Being that Batiste is a liquor rep for beverage distributors in Denver, the bar menu is strong. Of course, there is a hurricane — the riotous combination of Peg Leg and Sailor Jerry rum, passion fruit, orange and lime juices, simple syrup and grenadine — but there are also more original offerings like the liquid sunshine which combines Tanteo chipotle tequila, pineapple and cranberry juices and fresh oranges and limes. There are also a variety of beers, including multiple selections from the Louisiana staple Abita.
One thing you’ll be sure to find at Voodoo is people leaning back into their seats, smiling and chatting casually. Batiste’s regular and inviting presence might have something to do with it, as do the many televisions and nonchalant but attentive service. It also might be the food, that will inevitably leave you feeling pampered and cozy in a way that is hard to find outside the comfort of home — a rare expertise Batiste has managed to accomplish with apparent ease.
NOLA Voodoo Tavern and Perks is located at 2231 Bruce Randolph Ave., Denver. It is open Tuesday – Thursday 4 – 10 p.m., Friday and Saturday 11 a.m. – 10:30 p.m. and Sunday 10:30 a.m – 9 p.m., it is closed on Monday.
All photography by Alden Bonecutter.